Quite recently, David Bailey decided to make a sculpture of his old friend Andy Warhol. In his studio on Dartmoor, he took a tin can, filled it with beans and then took some more beans to sculpt into the semblance of Warhol's head. The idea was that the head would seem to spew from the tin, and the resultant sculpture was to be called Dead Andy. Bailey capped the bean head with a blue-rinsed approximation of Warhol's hairdo and covered the lot in plaster. Then, like a Nigella of sculpture, he left it to set.
"I thought I knew what I was doing," says one of the world's most illustrious photographers. "But when I got up in the morning, the thing had exploded. Total fucking disaster, plaster everywhere."
"Dried beans, the ones you soak overnight, just expand in those conditions," says Bailey's wife, Catherine.
"That's right!" says Bailey. "So I did it again it, but this time with sweets."
"Jelly beans," explains Catherine. "They're about the size of baked beans."
And, of course, they don't detonate overnight. Bailey cackles like Dudley Moore, and reaches for another fag. We're sitting on the terrace of his 13th-century farmhouse on Dartmoor, having a lovely lunch made by Catherine. She is the former model who became Bailey's fourth wife when she was 22, and he was in his early 40s (the others were Rosemary Bramble, Catherine Deneuve and Marie Helvin). From here, green hills seem to roll away for ever, or at least to Torquay. "Fucking dreadful for my asthma," complains Bailey. "It's so damp here."
So is he working hard? "Harder than ever. I'm 72, but I'm painting, sculpting, making little boxes that the art ponces call cabinets of curiosities, making photographs. I've never worked in plaster or clay before, but I'm learning. I love learning new techniques."
Bailey is certainly busier than most pensioners. He's just back from Afghanistan, where he was snapping soldiers to raise money for the Help the Heroes charity. He's putting together two books about Delhi, and expects to mount six exhibitions of his work this year. "All except painting," he adds. "They want me to put on a painting exhibition, but I said I've got enough enemies already."
He has less compunction about his sculptures. Next month, David Bailey Sculpture + opens at the Pangolin gallery in King's Cross, London. "In this exhibition," says the blurb, "Bailey strips away conventional beauty, and instead focuses on the skull that lies beneath the perfect skin once captured by his camera." You get the idea: Bailey once made Jean Shrimpton into a swinging 60s icon; he once shot the Kray brothers in their murderous pomp; he once captured the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones – but now he's turning his back on celebrity and going all David Attenborough on us.
'Yes! Yes! Yes! No. No. Yes!'
"The skull is nature's sculpture," he says. "The old ones get this lovely patina." In the exhibition, new photographs of animal skulls will hang from the walls, surrounding bronze and silver casts made from Bailey's sculpted maquettes at the gallery's foundry.
"I'm not a sculptor," he says. "I'm an image-maker. Did you know I've got an Emmy?" For what? "For a 30-second fucking commercial for cancer! It was anti-smoking and had this girl's face melting from all the tar she was smoking. A woman rang me and said, 'Are you David Bailey, the director?' And I said, 'That's debatable, love.' She said, 'You're the first non-American to win an Emmy for a commercial.' And I said, 'Does the manicurist get one too?' She got furious. I love Americans, but I'd like them more if they knew when someone's taking the piss." He stubs out his cigarette. "But the point is I just make images – the medium is secondary."
Before seeing Bailey in Dartmoor, I visit the London backroom where his sculptures are currently housed. Many of the works feature skulls, but the one that captivates me is called Adam, a circle-faced figure/assemblage that has a leering expression, and a snake for an arm reaching down to clutch a rudimentary penis. Is the snake's head pulling the putative plonker, I wonder, or biting it?
According to the catalogue essay, something else is going on: "The vaunted phallicism of the 'shooting' camera lens is invoked here." That description makes me think of David Hemmings in the 1966 movie Blow-Up, playing a version of Bailey as he shoots Vanessa Redgrave. Then it makes me think of Mike Myers as Austin Powers, snapping Ivana Humpalot, or some other satirised 60s siren, to this monologue: "Crazy baby. Give me some shoulder. Yes! Yes! Yes! No. No. Yes! And – done. Here you go, luv. I'm spent." Before chucking the camera, post-coitally, over his shoulder. Vaunted phallicism indeed.
You've got a nerve showing sculptures in King's Cross, I tell Bailey. He looks at me blankly. Round the corner at the Gagosian Gallery, there is Picasso's Mediterranean Years, a show featuring assemblages and sculptures to which the photographer clearly owes a debt. One of Bailey's sculptures, called Pretty Woman, is an oil can with a long spout perched on gangly bird's legs. It looks like a knock-off of one of those Picasso assemblages (a pregnant goat with an exhaust pipe for an anus, for instance).
"I've always been an image-maker, and now I'm making images that aren't photographs," says Bailey. Fair enough, but the "now" is misleading. Even when he was a little East End scruff, bunking off school, breeding parrots and going on ornithological rambles, he was already an artist, making shoebox-sized cabinets of curiosities like Joseph Cornell's. "I didn't know it was art, but I was always making boxes. I'd call them things like Stone I Found in Forest Gate."
He still makes boxes, with broader ambitions. After lunch, he shows me several, one of which is called America and includes a Confederate flag, a severed green baby's head and a Mexican stick figure. "It's about America – abortion, immigration, you know," he says.
Bailey was born in 1938 in Leytonstone, London, a couple of streets from Hitchcock's birthplace, and later moved to East Ham. "The only form of art in the East End was the movies. We would go to the pictures with bread and jam sandwiches five or six nights a week to keep warm – it was cheaper than putting on the heating at home, so I saw a lot of films." In his studio, he shows me a heartfelt painting of Hitler with Mickey Mouse, bearing the caption: "1944 Hitler killed Mickey in Upton Park." Nearly 70 years on, what the Luftwaffe did to six-year-old David still wrankles. "Hitler bombed Upton Park cinema. I thought he'd killed Mickey and Bambi, the cunt."
Disney wasn't little David's only cultural infusion. "I saw a Picasso in Look magazine when I was 17. I didn't know what art was before then, and it blew me away. If there's ever been a bit of revelation in my life, that was it. Picasso showed me there were no rules. A bicycle wheel doesn't have to be round. He had a simple visual inventiveness, never complicated and never pretentious. That's what my photographs are about – keeping it simple.
"That's why I like primitive art. And that's why I like the blues, which is the only great art form to have come out of America – and it's really African. Some of those guys only knew four songs. But so what? Express yourself. Keep it simple."
Four weeks with cannibals
Despite his interest in art, Bailey never went to art school. "They wouldn't have let me in with my school record, but anyway, I think it would have fucked me up." Why? "What I do is direct and simple. Not sure art school would have helped me get there." Instead, he did two years of national service in Malaya. "There's a picture of me somewhere by my bed in the jungle with a picture of Picasso over it. They would say to me, 'Who the fuck do you think you are?' But I was a cockney so I was used to fighting."
Bailey has collected art, especially tribal masks, since the early 60s. He takes me round the art in his house. "Not many photographs here because it's too damp," he says, as we breeze through the living room's display of masks. "You're the first journalist I've let in. That's rubbish. That's rubbish. That's good. I got that from New Guinea when I spent four weeks with some cannibals. That's rubbish. That's rubbish. I've got truth-telling Tourette's, you see. That's a lovely mask from Benin. That's rubbish. That's an Arp, that's Irving Penn. That's by my favourite photographer, [Manuel] Bravo."
We wander into a bedroom. "That's a dead bear," he says pointing to the pelt on the bed. "That's a dead tiger. And that," he says, pointing to a doll from the second Austin Powers film, "is little me." Bailey clearly accepts Mike Myers's back-handed tribute.
It's time to go. What will you do if the critics give your sculptures a pasting? "I don't mind if people don't like my things. I do it for myself nowadays. It's only a few nutcases who do art for themselves, like Van Gogh. But I'm not going to cut off my ear."
The veteran portraitist has chosen 250 works for his Bailey’s Stardust show at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh later this month.
This show, packed with images of the Rolling Stones, Man Ray, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Francis Bacon, Kate Moss, Damien Hirst and the tribespeople of Papua New Guinea and the Naga Hills [on the India-Burma border], has triumphed in London and internationally. Is the Edinburgh exhibition any different?
Yes, there’s another show within it called Moon Glow. Mostly mixed media, oil, collages. Some of it’s completely new. Some of it’s from as early as 1970. I don’t like the idea of a retrospective. I always feel I should try something new. Continuous change. That’s what the Buddhists say. I’d be rather a good Buddhist.
You’d like to wear the saffron robes?
I don’t want to dress like them. I want to think like them. I’m not religious. Not even spiritual. But I’m open to learning. If you want to be really camp you’d have to join the Catholic church. I love all that – pure theatre. The best art, the best smells. It’s operatic. We’re all part of something. Like William Blake said – the whole universe in a grain of sand. He’s one of the thinkers. But I like that Hindu thing, too – we’re all the dream of Krishna. That’s good, nice. I’ll listen to anybody.
That could be dangerous.
Yeah, very dangerous. I know what I think. But I could be wrong. I can always see the other side. That’s why I’m not political. I’m glad the Conservatives won the election. I’ve spent all my life reinventing the class system, then Ed Miliband comes along and screws all that division. He’s set the class war back years.
You like the Conservatives?
No, not particularly. That guy George Osborne is pretty clever about the economy, even if his hairstyle is awful.
How is it you’re always called Bailey? Do you insist on it?
No way. That was Jean Shrimpton. It stuck. In the East End I was Dave. Or Da’ – as in “day”. I suppose it’s a bit public school to be called by your surname. At Condé Nast they just credited us as Avedon, Horst, Bailey.
You’ve said about some women, “the camera loves her”. What do you mean?
I’ve said it often, but there are very few. They’re not necessarily the most beautiful women ever. Jean Shrimpton, Kate Moss, Dietrich, Garbo – they all had that quality. It’s a mystery. The idea of beauty has expanded. The Romans had a very particular idea. I think a lot about the seeds of beauty. As a kid there was a shop that sold packets of seeds. I was obsessed with the idea of these little black things growing into different kinds of beauty. Magic.
Instagram, Snapchat, we’re all photographers now…
Anyone can take a photograph. Like anyone can use a pencil and paper. But can anyone be Picasso? It’s the same with photography. A chimpanzee could take a good picture. It’s like when the Box Brownie was invented in 1900. Everyone said, that’s the end of photography. And the same when digital came along. It’s a kind of doodling. It might come to something, a happy accident. Good luck if it does.
The world's earliest selfies – in pictures
You say you make photographs, you don’t take them …
It’s more how you feel than how you see. It’s the emotion. I spend an hour chatting and a few minutes taking the picture. I wish my ears could do the snapping. I’m thinking of inventing an ear camera. Even seemingly boring people have stories. That’s what keeps me fascinated. Landscapes are OK If you’ve got time to sit around and wait for a cloud to arrive. I can’t talk to the trees – unless I’m an Ink Spot. You know who they are?[starts crooning]: “Whispering grass, don’t tell the trees / ’Cause the trees – don’t need – to... know-ow …” Of course they fucking don’t. They’d probably feel incredibly bored. But I love trees. I think they’re here to stay.
Your East End past, your friendship with the Kray brothers … does that world still exist?
Yes and no. I’ve gone back and put it in my three volumes of East End books. You have to understand people ate tea leaves they were so poor. They’d do anything to feed their children. Women sold their bodies. It’s time and place. Easy to judge, easy to be pompous. The Krays were a bit like Tolstoy’s Cossacks. Fucking anarchists, but with their own morality. They didn’t do prostitutes or drugs. I quite liked Reg, even though when he was 19 he slashed my father’s face with a razor. Ron was a basket full of rattlesnakes. They were dotty guys. Reg took me aside once – everything always had to be secret with Reg – and he said “‘Ere, Da’. I wish I could have done it legit like you.” That was touching. There was me, a fucking dyslexic cockney with no qualifications, and I got out.
David Bailey's East End - in pictures
The Krays were a bit older. How did you meet? In the street? Playing football?
Playing football? Football? Are you fucking mad? Silly sods kicking balls around. I detest sport. The idea of competing… now that’s vulgar, even for an East End boy.
Were the 60s, the time that made you famous, all they were cracked up to be?
Yeah for about 2,000 people living in London. For everyone else, steelworkers or coal miners or the very poor, it was a shit time.
You’ve kept the hard-living image, but you gave up drink and drugs long ago?
Yes, 40 years ago. Drugs and prostitution should be legalised. The politicians know. But it’s not a vote winner. “Excuse me, madam, we’re going to legalise cannabis.” Ha. People only want to know what’s in their pay packet.
Do you agree that most of what you do comes from the past?
Yeah… but from my past. The Renaissance is bad shit! I’m still fascinated with Hitler and Churchill and Mickey Mouse and the war and living down in the coal cellar. Growing up in East Ham by the river, I had a sense of the foreign. It was like being in Twin Peaks. You know – the sound of the foghorn? My uncle – who was gay and lived with us; I just knew, no one told me – he was in the navy. He came back with a wind-up gramophone and records of Maori songs. I loved them. My dad was homophobic. My mum – it was her brother – was in denial. She was the one who pushed for a better life. It’s always the woman. Mum was the tough one. Even the gypsies were scared of her.
What was school like?
I was in the silly class. Kids with a limp or a twitch and people like me. I was at the top. Being at the bottom of the silly class – now that would have been bit of shit wouldn’t it? I left school on my 15th birthday. Out. End. The headmaster said, someone has to clean the roads.
Did you have a sense, deep down, that you were going to have some starring role in life?
No, no way.
Heaven or hell, I imagine. I was feeling pretty dicky yesterday. But I’ve had a fucking good time.
Bailey’s Stardust is at the Scottish National Gallery, The Mound, Edinburgh, 18 July to 18 October